John Jett, who was a team leader for Tilikum, says he sometimes would suffer a beatdown bad enough to rake up his skin and bloody him and would have to be held out of shows until he healed. Jett had a term for the blood left streaming in the water: "sky writing." After a good thrashing from the other orcas, Jett says, Tilikum might be "off" for days, "splitting" from his trainer to swim at high speed around the pool, acting agitated around the females, or opening his eyes wide and emitting distress vocals if asked to get into a vulnerable position (like rolling over on his back). "It's extremely sad if you think about being in Tili's situation," says Jett. "The poor guy just has no place to run."
SeaWorld's Fred Jacobs denies that Tilikum was ever held out of shows due to injuries from other orcas. "Injuries as part of the expression of social dominance are rare and almost never serious," he says. "We manage Tilikum's social interaction on a daily basis."
In 1999, Tilikum reminded the world that, at least when it came to humans, he could be a very dangerous animal. Early on the morning of July 6, Michael Dougherty, a physical trainer at SeaWorld, arrived at his office near the underwater viewing area of G pool. He glanced through the viewing glass and saw Tilikum staring back, with what appeared to be two human feet hanging down his side. There was a nude body draped across Tilikum's back. It wasn't moving. As in the Brancheau incident, Tilikum was herded onto the medical lift in order for SeaWorld staff to retrieve the body. Rigor mortis had already set in. It was a young male, and again the coroner's and sheriff's reports are telling. He had puncture wounds and multiple abrasions on his face.
The victim was Daniel Dukes, a 27-year-old with a reddish-blond ponytail, a scraggly beard and mustache, and a big red "D" tattooed above his left nipple. Four days earlier, he'd been released from the Indian River County Jail after being booked for retail theft. On July 5, he apparently hid at SeaWorld past closing or sneaked in after hours. At some point during the night, he stripped down to his swim trunks, placed his clothes in a neat pile, and jumped into the pool. Perhaps he was simply crazy or suicidal. Perhaps he believed in the myth of a friendly Shamu.
The coroner determined the cause of death to be drowning. There were no cameras or witnesses, so it's not known if Tilikum held him under or hypothermia did him in. But it's clear Tilikum worked Dukes over. The coroner found abrasions and contusions—both premortem and postmortem—all over his head and body, and puncture wounds on his left leg. His testicles had been ripped open. Divers had to go to the bottom of the pool to retrieve little pieces of his body. SeaWorld ramped up its security, posting a 24-hour watch at Shamu Stadium. Keltie Byrne had not been an aberration.
IF ANYONE WAS GOING to take care around Tilikum, it was Dawn Brancheau. She was one of SeaWorld's best and completely dedicated to the animals and her job. (She even met her husband, Scott, in the SeaWorld cafeteria.) She had worked at SeaWorld Orlando since 1994, spending two years working with otters and sea lions before graduating to work with the killer whales. She was fun and selfless, volunteering at a local animal shelter and often keeping everything from stray ducks and chickens to rabbits and small birds at her home.
Over time, Brancheau had become one of SeaWorld's most trusted trainers, one of the dozen or so authorized to work with Tilikum. "Dawn showed prowess from the minute she set foot here. There's not one of us who wouldn't say that she was one of the best," says Flaherty Clark. Brancheau knew the risks and accepted them: "You can't put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you," she once told a reporter.
Perhaps she trusted Tilikum too much. Thad Lacinak, the former VP of animal training at SeaWorld, thinks so. He says Brancheau was an exemplary trainer, one of the best he'd ever seen in the water. Still, Lacinak thinks Brancheau made a mistake lying down so close to Tilikum's mouth and letting her hair drift in the water alongside him. "She never should have put herself in that vulnerable a position," he says. "One of the things we always talked about at SeaWorld was you never want to get totally comfortable with any animal."